Making Real Friends in Low Places

A Jesuit priest dares soon-to-be graduates to consider service

lowplacesinsideUnlike any time in recent history, college seniors are being forced to think long and hard about what’s next. Though some no doubt are struggling mightily to ignore that question for another few weeks, with the current economic crisis deepening and unemployment rising it’s understandable that young adults would have a lot of anxiety about it. For those who might feel paralyzed, I’d like to offer one suggestion: Be of service to others.

Look, you’re young, free and able to take a year and do something great for those who could really use your talents and energy. The Obama administration is encouraging more young people to consider some form of service. Grad schools look more closely at those who have done something for a year or two after graduation. The person who graduates in May and wants to go to grad school in September… how does one really know: Do they want to plumb the depths of an academic discipline? Or is the recently minted grad just a lost and confused soul who can’t figure out what to do next?

Service programs like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Mercy Corps and countless others plunge you into the real world big time, and that prepares you for whatever you do next.

Senator Bob Casey from Pennsylvania served with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at the in North Philadelphia back in 1982-83. In Spring, 2008, he told a gathering of volunteer program leaders that his experiences as a Jesuit Volunteer have stayed with him. What he learned in that year makes him walk the halls of Congress knowing he has to be aware of, and concerned for, “the last, the lonely, and the least” in our society.

Be changed

The relationships we form in such cross-cultural and cross-class situations broaden and deepen us, stretch us and transform us, and eventually, in ways grace-filled and mysterious, make us whole and holy.

Learn what Casey learned. Be changed as he was changed. Go off to a year of service. You will discover what so many others who have taken a year or two to serve have learned: that the relationships we form in such cross-cultural and cross-class situations broaden and deepen us, stretch us and transform us, and eventually, in ways grace-filled and mysterious, make us whole and holy. Relationships with people who at first seem very different from “us” gradually heal our blindness and help us to see that, in many ways, we are all very much alike. We are all children of a loving God, and that compassionate deity calls us to love one another.

Love is as simple and direct, as confusing and opaque, as any human endeavor. Open your hearts to those people whom you would serve: that street women who smells really bad, but whose heart is true and pure; that seemingly crazy Vietnam vet who is more intelligent than anyone you’ve ever met; that monster child who disrupts your third grade class every day, then writes you a card at the end of the year — handed in with PB&J mushed in it — that you will keep for the rest of your life; companion volunteers who will be at your wedding, at your kids’ baptisms, first communions and graduations; and at your funeral, if you are not first at theirs. Know that a service year is all about the love: the people you let love you, and the love you give to people you’d otherwise never meet.

You could begin one of the great adventures of your life. Go and enjoy. Give it all you’ve got. You will never regret having opened your life and your love to the economically disadvantaged. Such people have immense riches to share with you. Like Senator Casey, you may one day be in a position to help structure a society where more of its riches are shared by all.

It’s not us helping “them”

The work of justice, the sharing of riches wisely and well, is a requirement of our humanity. Even more fascinating, as human beings we are called beyond simple justice; we are called to love and form community.

You don’t even really go to help “them” … You go to overcome the separation between “us” and “them.”

Know that the opposite of poverty is not riches; the opposite of poverty is community. Risk it. Apply. Go, in trembling and hope, in fear and youthful exuberance, to do the most important work God has left for us, the work of reconciliation. As a volunteer, you will go and reach out your hand to “the last, the lonely, and the least” in our society. You can let such folks know they are cherished and cared for by a God who comes to them through you. Yes, you. Fascinating thought. Our all powerful God depending on us. Even more intriguing, you may see God coming to you through them.

Working for justice and love and reconciliation in community is fascinating and freeing. Learning how God works through you during a year or two of service teaches you how to let God work through you all the days of your life.

Take some time to reflect over your last four years. Many call college the best days of their lives. All the years of our lives are great if we continue to open our hearts to new relationships and our minds to new ways of perceiving and understanding our world.

You won’t go to “save” or “fix” others, or the world, or yourself. To paraphrase a well-known saying of an Australian Aboriginal woman, You don’t even really go to help “them.” You go to meet the poor — the proverbial “other” — because your liberation is intimately bound up with the liberation of all who are oppressed. You go to overcome the separation between “us” and “them” until all are one, a communion, a “we.”

If you are wrestling with the desire to take a year and do service, don’t hesitate. Just do it. You will never regret opening your life, your love, your heart to those the global economy has placed at the bottom of the ladder. Go ahead. Click. I dare you —;,

As you work for justice and love and reconciliation in community, as God works through you this year: May you have Joy for the Journey, Courage for the Choices, Faith for the Freeing, Hope for the Healing and Love for the Lasting.